Rufus Won't Wake Up
The sight before the first officers on the scene was undoubtedly the most bizarre thing they had ever seen. A child's toy, a "Big Wheel" plastic tricycle, lay cradled in the front seat of a Mercedes Benz amongst the shards of remains of the shattered windshield it had burst through. The front wheel was lodged firmly in the vicinity of what should have been the jaw of the shattered skull of one Ned Dirkheim, sole occupant of the vehicle. As if this were not enough, a trail of blood, apparently left by the fleeing assailant, described a path from the site of impact, across the hood, through the parking lot, and out into the muggy night, signifying the impossible -- or at least the highly improbable: Someone had ridden that tricycle through the windshield, and walked away.
"Where is he?"
"He's always late."
Ned Dirkheim, his face lined with deep furrows, looked at his watch for the fourth time in as many minutes. "Where is he?" he asked again.
Mark didn't feel he needed to answer. Instead he dropped his cigarette to the marble floor and crushed it with his foot.
"We ought to leave without him," Ned said, scowling. "That would teach him."
"Take it easy, Ned. He's always late. You know that."
Ned fidgeted with his car keys.
Mark continued, "Well, don't you? You should by now."
"Well, if you don't want him in our carpool..."
"I know. Just tell him. I know. I just might do that."
"You've been saying that for the last..."
"I know! The last eight years." He regained a bit of composure and said, "I'm tired and I want to get home."
Mark just laughed. He was about to light another cigarette when he saw Douglas get out of an elevator on the far bank of the lobby.
"It's about time," Ned muttered to Mark. He turned and started toward the parking lot before Douglas could join them.
"What's up with him?" said Douglas, motioning toward the rapidly disappearing Ned.
Mark laughed and said, sarcastically, "Douglas, I'm surprised at you. Don't you know you shouldn't keep the Junior Vice President of Dayton Realty waiting?"
"Jesus. I forgot my briefcase, so I had to go all the way back up to..."
"Save it. Save it. I don't give a damn. Ned's just a little high-strung these days."
They caught up with Ned at his Mercedes Benz and he let them in without a word. They rolled out of the parking complex and Ned barreled out onto the Hollywood freeway. He pulled into the first lane and joined the thousands of other commuters bumper to bumper on their long, slow voyage to their suburban homes. The traffic crawled, threatening always to come to a complete halt, like a steel river on a concrete bed, flowing and snaking into the smoggy, brown horizon.
It was nearly an hour later when they crept off the Hollywood and onto the Ventura freeway. Ned took the Woodman street exit and dropped off Douglas in front of his home.
"Goodnight, Mark. Goodnight, Ned," Douglas said.
"Yeah, see ya' tomorrow, Doug," said Mark. They both glanced at Ned staring out of the windshield, but he said nothing.
The car roared off, back to the freeway, and out again into the Los Angeles twilight.
"If you don't mind me saying so, I think you should try to unwind a little," Mark said.
"Well, I do mind."
Mark decided it was not worth the effort to talk to Ned. He lit a cigarette and sat back to enjoy the ride.
A car passed them, swerved in front of them, cut into another lane and sped ahead.
"Damned kids!" Ned bellowed. He gripped the steering wheel tightly, and fear raced through him. "I swear to you, I'm never having kids as long as I live! They just grow up to be maniac teenagers."
"All right, Ned. All right. Calm down. Watch the road. Just get us home. Look, if the freeway is getting you so wound up, why don't we just get off at the next off ramp, instead of the one we usually use, and take surface streets to my house. We're nearly there anyway."
"What the hell." He turned down the off-ramp, and onto a wide boulevard.
"Slow down a little," Mark said.
"Just leave the driving to me," he said, violently snapping on the headlights and swerving onto a side street.
Suddenly a thump sounded in the car and a small white shape flew up in front of the windshield.
"What the fuck was that?" asked Mark.
Ned slammed on the brakes and the car came to a lurching halt. Both men looked back down the street. Ned felt dizzy as he recognized the lifeless shape in the street. It was a dog. A very dead dog.
"Let's get out of here," he rasped, his throat tight with revulsion.
"But, Ned, shit. That's someone's dog."
"I don't give a shit. It's not my fault some..."
A small boy had walked up to the dog. He pushed it a few times with his sneakered foot, and turned to face the car. Ned felt a strange bolt of energy race up his spine. For a moment, the child seemed larger than he should have been, his eyes more penetrating than they should have been. Ned felt a clammy panic embrace his heart -- the boy seemed to loom over the car, towering there in the suburban street. He felt the child's gaze burst through his very soul like a buzz saw through butter.
The sound of the passenger door opening brought him back to his senses.
"Get back in here, dammit, Mark!" he said.
Mark turned to him and said, "Are you kidding me? That dog belongs to that kid. We better talk to him. And you should probably make some sort of arrangement for compensation with his parents."
Ned was feeling more like himself now. He glanced into the rear- view mirror. Yes, the small child was merely a small child. Apparently, he had gone through a momentary delusion -- probably from the stress of the incident. That child, he thought, is too young to think of taking my license plate number; I could drive off and no one would know.
"Well, aren't you going to get out?" Mark said.
"No. No, I'm not going to," Ned said, "Let me take you home first -- it's only a few blocks away -- and then I'll come back. No use both of us being home late just because of some stupid dog." He put the car in gear and drove to Mark's house.
"Well, Ned. Good luck with the kid and his dog. I hope his parents don't give you too much hell."
Ned chuckled. "Oh, they won't."
"What makes you so sure?"
Ned just chuckled again.
"Look, Ned. This is the first time you've laughed all night. You're making me nervous. You are going back to the kid, aren't you?"
"Oh, Christ, Mark, why the hell should I? It's just some stupid dog. The kid'll get over it in no time. Next week he'll have some new toy and he won't even remember he had a dog." Mark didn't look convinced. "Just forget about it, Mark. You can bet I'm going to. Hell, I honestly couldn't even tell you exactly where it happened."
"Forget about it? How could I forget? That kid was standing there staring at us."
"Look. To tell you the truth, I don't really give a shit."
Mark had trouble hiding his contempt and said, "I don't think I'll need a ride in tomorrow. I'll take the bus." He slammed the door.
Ned drove back to the freeway. Of course, I did the right thing, he told himself. I'm a busy man. I don't have time for some brat's tragedy. God knows no one had time for mine when I was a boy.
Under the freeway overpass he paused for a red light. He noticed some graffiti scrawled across the concrete wall. Damned kids, writing on the walls, he thought. He read aloud: "Rufus won't wake up." Must be the name of some new rock group.
The light changed and he slid back onto the freeway. Soon he was near his home. He had almost put the incident with the dog out of his mind, and to completely eradicate it he decided to pull into his favorite neighborhood bar. He parked the car in the lot, got out, and locked his door. He noticed a tuft of fur caught in the chrome around the headlight and stopped to pull it out. There was more caught in the center of the grillwork, and he methodically pulled it all out. Amid the gore and fur was a dog tag. He read it and his initial fear rose up again in him. It said:
"Rufus"In his mind's eye he saw the graffiti under the freeway: Rufus won't wake up. It must be pure coincidence, he told himself. He looked down at the tag. His hand was trembling. He tossed the tag into a nearby hedge and headed into the bar. Stupid kid, he thought. Stupid dog.
1314 Kilgore Lane
"Hello, Mr. Dirkheim. Good to see ya'. Come on in and make yourself comfortable," Nick the bartender said upon spotting Ned.
"Say, you look a little shook up. Everything all right?"
"Gimme a bourbon, Nick. And make it snappy."
"Comin' right up." He poured a glass.
Ned promptly tossed it down. Jesus, he thought, I've got to pull myself together. He walked to the men's room and stepped inside. There in the brilliant florescent glare he saw, amongst the other graffiti, the last phrase in the world he wanted to see: Rufus won't wake up.
He stood stunned for a few moments, then rushed to the sink and soaked a paper towel in the lukewarm water. With determination he scrubbed at the scrawl on the wall. He noticed with horrified fascination that it was written in a child's hand. He scrubbed furiously but the words would not be removed.
Suddenly, the sound of barking from the bar grabbed his attention. He tossed the towel in the garbage and hurled himself through the door. A few people at the bar were laughing uproariously, and Nick was wiping down the far end of the bar, but no dog could be seen.
Ned strode up to Nick and said, "Is there a dog in here?"
"A dog. Is there a dog in here?"
"You know I wouldn't let a dog in my bar, Mr. Dirkheim."
"Did you hear a dog just now?"
Ned sat himself down on a stool. "Say, Nick, give me another."
Nick did, and then returned to wiping down the counter.
"Funny you should mention dogs, Mr. Dirkheim."
Ned lifted his glass to his mouth. "Why's that?"
"Well, there's all this dog hair on my bar. I can't get it off, it seems like..."
Ned spilled his drink, coughed and sputtered.
"It wasn't my fault!" he blurted out. "The damned thing ran right out into the street!"
"What the hell are you talking about? Keep it down!"
The knot of people at the other end of the bar laughed riotously again, but to Ned the laughter sounded like a pack of dogs barking. That this explained the barking he had heard in the men's room calmed him not at all. He jumped off his stool, tossed a wad of dollar bills on the bar, and dashed out the door.
Just outside he slipped and fell. He jumped back to his feet. To his great dismay, he saw that he had skidded on a pile of canine dung. He spun on his heels and headed in a dash for the car. Someone had carved into the paint on the hood with something sharp. It said: Rufus won't wake up.
Ned gasped. He fished his keys out of his pocket and fumbled with them, dropping them to the asphalt. He retrieved them and unlocked the door. Once seated, with the doors closed and locked, he picked up his car phone and dialed Mark.
"Hello, Mary Ann? Is Mark around?"
"Why, yes. He's here. Hold on a moment."
Ned held on. It seemed much longer than a moment. The seconds ticked by. They felt like minutes, hours, days. He began to wonder if they had been cut off. He pushed down the automatic door lock button again and glanced out the side window. He was horrified, but not entirely surprised, to see scrawled across the front wall of the bar in five foot letters: Rufus won't wake up.
He felt his bowels convulse involuntarily. Come on... Come on... he thought, pick up the goddamned phone. He knew he had to get back to the scene of the incident to straighten out the mess he had begun, but what he had told Mark was horribly true -- he couldn't remember exactly where it had happened. All those dark side streets looked much the same. It could have been any one of them. But, Mark could tell him exactly where it had happened.
A faint rustling sound on the receiver blossomed suddenly into a burst of static, followed by a low whine, an oozing howl slithering down the phone line and into Ned's ear.
"Hi," said a voice on the phone.
"Hello, Mark?" said Ned, although he knew it wasn't Mark. It was the voice of the child.
"Mister... Rufus won't wake up."
Ned's world spun. It's impossible, he told himself. Yet the voice continued.
"Did you hear me, mister? Rufus won't wake up."
"I hear you," he said. "Listen, kid. I -- I -- I'm sorry I hit your dog."
"No you're not!" The child's voice rose with emotion. It was plain to hear he was crying, and angry.
"I am. I'm really sorry, kid." He realized suddenly that he really was sorry. And almost against his will he shot back through the murky years of memory to his own childhood and all the pleas unheard, all the tears unseen. He once again felt his young, needy arms embrace his father who felt stiff and unyielding under the hug. His father who was a cold stone monolith. His father who could never return an embrace.
"No you're not!" the child repeated.
"Yes. Yes I am. I truly am." He felt somehow offended the child would not believe him just as he had come to this revelation that startled even himself.
"You're not sorry! You're not, you're not, you're not!"
"Please believe me."
"Rufus won't wake up, and neither will you." the child said.
And Ned Dirkheim drew his last breath in a rasping, rushing gasp. And Ned Dirkheim watched a speck in the sky turn to a distinguishable shape with impossible speed. And Ned Dirkheim recognized the shape as a Big Wheel. And Ned Dirkheim felt the convulsion of his car as the windshield burst. And Ned Dirkheim tasted plastic and came apart at the seams.
Brian Tanaka (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives and frolics in San Francisco. He continues to enjoy writing despite having just graduated from San Francisco State University with a B.A. in Creative Writing. (Bio last updated in 1992.)
InterText stories written by Brian Tanaka: "Glow" (v2n4), "Rufus Won't Wake Up" (v2n4).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 Brian Tanaka.